Rory Speaks in Debate on Lords Reform


It is unfortunate that the debate has turned into an attack on the Liberal Democrats. This is a huge opportunity for reform. There has been a lot of talk about the 21st century and democracy, and there is an important democratic opportunity in the Bill that I hope the Liberal Democrats will lead us in taking.

We have heard much about 21st century democracy. There are many different kinds of democracy. We have the trunk of the democracy, meaning the directly elected legislature, which in our case is this place; the crown of the tree, which is the rule of law; and the root, which is the constitution. The constitution is an example of something on which we can work together.

What kind of democracy do we have in that context? We can have as many different kinds as there are trees: we can have flowers on it, like a cherry tree, or strange brown leaves like a beech in winter, or needles like a pine tree. Within our democracy, we have judges who are not elected, as we have heard ad infinitum, and generals who are not elected. Certain powers are taken away from the House and given to non-elected people as part of our democracy. For example, the Labour Government were proud to take away control of interest rates from Parliament and to give it to an independent central bank. Government Members were proud to take control of economic forecasting away from this place and give it to the Office for Budget Responsibility. Indeed, there was a lot of consensus on taking away investigative powers from the House and giving them to the independent, judge-led Leveson inquiry.

Exactly what balance of elected and unelected people we want within a democratic constitution is an interesting question. Like the Chinese, we could elect our generals; like the Americans, we could elect judges; or, like the Canadians, we could have an appointed upper Chamber. What determines that balance in a democracy is what we want to do and the problems we are trying to solve.

The problems of 1909—this is my point about the 21st century—are not, sadly, the problems of today. The Senate in the US was created to deal with an over-mighty sovereign and the problem of the relationship between the territories, such as the states, and the population. The problem that the Liberals tried to solve in 1909 was that the hereditary peerage deliberately blocked financial regulation—the Liberals largely solved it with the Parliament Act 1911.

Since then, our countries and our parties have changed. Many things in our manifestos in 1909 are no longer in our manifestos today, because the nature of our problems has changed. The problems we are dealing with today are not the problems of 1909. We can see that in elected second Chambers throughout the world. The kinds of problems that led to the creation of the directly elected Australian Senate after 1900, which inspired the reforms in the UK, and the problems that led to the creation of the directly elected Italian Senate in 1948, have passed. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, there was a reduction in the number of bicameral legislatures.

We need to solve the problems of today. They are problems of local democracy, on which the Liberal Democrats should be proud of taking the lead; they are problems of accountability in large multilateral institutions such as the European Union, on which I hope hon. Members together can take a lead; and they are problems of professionalism and expertise.

However, perhaps the greatest democratic challenge for this country in the 21st century—I hope the Liberal Democrats will take the lead on this—is the root, meaning the constitution. It is in that respect that we are behind every other country in the world. Other countries have indirectly elected or appointed bicameral legislatures, but not a single responsible country remains that allows itself to change constitutional law as though it were ordinary law. The constitution protects the citizen from the Government. For that reason, the Government, who are temporary, have no right to interfere with the constitution of the people.

We felt differently about that in 1909. We flattered ourselves that we had a huge constitutional tradition, history and culture in the other place that forced us to debate and investigate those great issues. That time has passed, and today we find ourselves isolated in the world as the only country—the source of constitutionalism —that tries to behave as though there is no difference between constitutional law and non-constitutional law. Other countries, such as the Nordic countries, have a solution—they have a gap between two Parliaments, or they can demand a two-thirds majority or a referendum. In our case, we used to have a free vote and no guillotine motion.

Let hon. Members together take the great opportunity to ensure that constitutional change, which was positioned in the Liberal Democrat manifesto and endorsed by the Deputy Prime Minister and the majority of Government Members, happens in future only through a referendum.

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